Paul’s example in dealing with hostile, unresponsive people
Based on Acts 13:1-52
1, 2. What is unique about the journey that Barnabas and Saul are about to make, and how will their work help fulfill Acts 1:8?
IT IS an exciting day for the Antioch congregation. Of all the prophets and teachers here, Barnabas and Saul have been chosen by holy spirit to take the good news to faraway places.* (Acts 13:1, 2) True, qualified men have been sent out before. In the past, though, missionaries had journeyed to areas where Christianity had already taken root. (Acts 8:14; 11:22) This time, Barnabas and Saul—along with John Mark, who will serve as an attendant—will be sent to lands where people are largely unfamiliar with the good news.
2 Some 14 years earlier, Jesus had said to his followers: “You will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the most distant part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) The appointment of Barnabas and Saul to serve as missionaries will spur on the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic words!*
Set Apart “for the Work” (Acts 13:1-12)
3. What made long journeys difficult in the first century?
3 Today, thanks to such inventions as the automobile and the airplane, people can travel quite a distance in just an hour or two. Such was not the case in the first century C.E. Back then, the main mode of travel on land was to walk, often over rough terrain. A day’s journey, perhaps covering just 20 miles (30 km), was exhausting!* Thus, while Barnabas and Saul no doubt eagerly looked forward to their assignment, they surely realized that considerable effort and self-sacrifice would be involved.—Matt. 16:24.
4. (a) What directed the choosing of Barnabas and Saul, and how did fellow believers react to the appointment? (b) How can we give support to those who receive theocratic assignments?
4 But why did the holy spirit specifically direct that Barnabas and Saul be set apart “for the work”? (Acts 13:2) The Bible does not say. We do know that the holy spirit directed the choosing of these men. There is no indication that the prophets and teachers in Antioch contested the decision. Instead, they fully supported the appointment. Imagine how Barnabas and Saul must have felt as their spiritual brothers, without envy, “fasted and prayed and laid their hands upon them and let them go.” (Acts 13:3) We too should support those who receive theocratic assignments, including men appointed as congregation overseers. Rather than being envious of those who receive such privileges, we should “give them more than extraordinary consideration in love because of their work.”—1 Thess. 5:13.
5. Describe what was involved in witnessing on the island of Cyprus.
5 After walking to Seleucia, a harbor near Antioch, Barnabas and Saul sailed to the island of Cyprus, a journey of about 120 miles (200 km).* As a native of Cyprus, Barnabas no doubt was eager to bring the good news to those in his home territory. Upon arriving at Salamis, a city on the eastern shore of the island, these men wasted no time. Immediately, “they began publishing the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.”* (Acts 13:5) Barnabas and Saul made their way from one end of Cyprus to the other, likely witnessing in key cities along the way. Depending on the route they took, these missionaries may have walked about 140 miles (220 km)!
6, 7. (a) Who was Sergius Paulus, and why did Bar-Jesus attempt to dissuade him from listening to the good news? (b) How did Saul counteract the opposition from Bar-Jesus?
6 First-century Cyprus was steeped in false worship. This became particularly apparent when Barnabas and Saul reached Paphos, on the western coast of the island. There, they met up with “a sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, and he was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man.”* In the first century, many sophisticated Romans—even “an intelligent man,” such as Sergius Paulus—often turned to a sorcerer or an astrologer for help in making important decisions. Nevertheless, Sergius Paulus was intrigued by the Kingdom message and “earnestly sought to hear the word of God.” This did not sit well with Bar-Jesus, who was also known by his professional title Elymas, meaning “Sorcerer.”—Acts 13:6-8.
7 Bar-Jesus was opposed to the Kingdom message. Indeed, the only way he could protect his influential position as adviser to Sergius Paulus was to “turn the proconsul away from the faith.” (Acts 13:8) But Saul was not about to watch a court magician divert the interest of Sergius Paulus. So, what did Saul do? The account states: “Saul, who is also Paul, becoming filled with holy spirit, looked at him [Bar-Jesus] intently and said: ‘O man full of every sort of fraud and every sort of villainy, you son of the Devil, you enemy of everything righteous, will you not quit distorting the right ways of Jehovah? Well, then, look! Jehovah’s hand is upon you, and you will be blind, not seeing the sunlight for a period of time.’ Instantly a thick mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went around seeking men to lead him by the hand.”* The result of this miraculous event? “The proconsul, upon seeing what had happened, became a believer, as he was astounded at the teaching of Jehovah.”—Acts 13:9-12.
8. How can we imitate Paul’s boldness today?
8 Paul was not intimidated by Bar-Jesus. Likewise, we should not cower when opposers try to subvert the faith of those who show interest in the Kingdom message. Of course, we should let our expressions “be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt.” (Col. 4:6) At the same time, we would not want to jeopardize the spiritual welfare of an interested person just to avoid conflict. Nor should we fearfully hold back from exposing false religion, which continues “distorting the right ways of Jehovah” as Bar-Jesus did. (Acts 13:10) Like Paul, may we boldly declare the truth and appeal to honesthearted ones. And even though God’s support may not be as obvious as it was in the case of Paul, we can be sure that Jehovah will use his holy spirit to draw deserving ones to the truth.—John 6:44.
A “Word of Encouragement” (Acts 13:13-43)
9. How did Paul and Barnabas set a fine example for those taking the lead in the congregation today?
9 Evidently, a change took place when the men left Paphos and set sail for Perga, on the coast of Asia Minor, about 150 miles (250 km) away by sea. At Acts 13:13, the group is identified as “the men, together with Paul.” The wording suggests that Paul now took the lead in the group’s activities. However, there is no indication that Barnabas became envious of Paul. On the contrary, these two men continued to work together to accomplish God’s will. Paul and Barnabas set a fine example for those who take the lead in the congregation today. Rather than vying for prominence, Christians remember Jesus’ words: “All you are brothers.” He added: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”—Matt. 23:8, 12.
10. Describe the journey from Perga to Pisidian Antioch.
10 Upon arriving at Perga, John Mark withdrew from Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem. The reason for his sudden departure is not explained. Paul and Barnabas continued on, traveling from Perga to Antioch in Pisidia, a city in the province of Galatia. This was no easy trek, since Pisidian Antioch is about 3,600 feet (1,100 m) above sea level. The treacherous mountain passages were also known for the prevalence of bandits. As if this were not enough, it is likely that at this point Paul was experiencing health problems.*
11, 12. In speaking in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, how did Paul appeal to his audience?
11 In Antioch of Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. The account relates: “After the public reading of the Law and of the Prophets the presiding officers of the synagogue sent out to them, saying: ‘Men, brothers, if there is any word of encouragement for the people that you have, tell it.’” (Acts 13:15) Paul stood up to speak.
12 Paul started out by addressing his audience: “Men, Israelites and you others that fear God.” (Acts 13:16) Paul’s audience was made up of Jews and proselytes. How did Paul appeal to these listeners, who did not recognize Jesus’ role in God’s purpose? First, Paul outlined the history of the Jewish nation. He explained how Jehovah “exalted the people during their alien residence in the land of Egypt” and how after their release God “put up with their manner of action in the wilderness” for 40 years. Paul also related how the Israelites were able to take possession of the Promised Land and how Jehovah “distributed the land of them by lot.” (Acts 13:17-19) It has been suggested that Paul may have been alluding to certain Scriptural passages that had been read aloud moments before as part of the Sabbath observance. If that is so, this is yet another example showing that Paul knew how to “become all things to people of all sorts.”—1 Cor. 9:22.
13. How can we appeal to the hearts of our listeners?
13 We too should strive to appeal to those to whom we preach. For example, knowing the religious background of a person can help us choose topics that will be of particular interest to him. Also, we can quote portions of the Bible with which the individual might be familiar. It may be effective to have the person read from his personal copy of the Bible. Look for ways to appeal to the hearts of your listeners.
14. (a) How did Paul introduce the good news about Jesus, and what warning did he provide? (b) How did the crowd react to Paul’s speech?
14 Paul next discussed how the line of Israelite kings led to “a savior, Jesus,” whose forerunner was John the Baptizer. Then Paul described how Jesus had been put to death and raised up from the dead. (Acts 13:20-37) “Let it therefore be known to you,” Paul stated, “that through this One a forgiveness of sins is being published to you . . . Everyone who believes is declared guiltless by means of this One.” The apostle then provided his listeners with this warning: “See to it that what is said in the Prophets does not come upon you, ‘Behold it, you scorners, and wonder at it, and vanish away, because I am working a work in your days, a work that you will by no means believe even if anyone relates it to you in detail.’” The response to Paul’s speech was amazing. “The people began entreating for these matters to be spoken to them on the following sabbath,” the Bible reports. In addition, after the synagogue assembly was adjourned, “many of the Jews and of the proselytes who worshiped God followed Paul and Barnabas.”—Acts 13:38-43.
“We Turn to the Nations” (Acts 13:44-52)
15. What happened on the Sabbath following Paul’s speech?
15 On the next Sabbath, “nearly all the city” gathered to listen to Paul. This did not please certain Jews, who “began blasphemously contradicting the things being spoken by Paul.” He and Barnabas boldly told them: “It was necessary for the word of God to be spoken first to you. Since you are thrusting it away from you and do not judge yourselves worthy of everlasting life, look! we turn to the nations. In fact, Jehovah has laid commandment upon us in these words, ‘I have appointed you as a light of nations, for you to be a salvation to the extremity of the earth.’”—Acts 13:44-47; Isa. 49:6.
16. How did the Jews react to the strong words of the missionaries, and how did Paul and Barnabas respond to the opposition?
16 Gentile listeners rejoiced, and “all those who were rightly disposed for everlasting life became believers.” (Acts 13:48) The word of Jehovah soon spread throughout the country. The reaction of the Jews was quite different. In effect, the missionaries told them that although God’s word had been spoken to them first, they had chosen to reject the Messiah and hence were in line for God’s adverse judgment. The Jews stirred up the city’s reputable women and principal men, “and they raised up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas and threw them outside their boundaries.” How did Paul and Barnabas respond? They “shook the dust off their feet against them and went to Iconium.” Was that the end of Christianity in Pisidian Antioch? Hardly! The disciples who were left behind “continued to be filled with joy and holy spirit.”—Acts 13:50-52.
17-19. In what ways can we imitate the fine example set by Paul and Barnabas, and how will our doing so contribute to our joy?
17 The manner in which these faithful ones responded to opposition provides a valuable lesson for us. We do not stop preaching, even when prominent people of the world try to dissuade us from proclaiming our message. Note, too, that when the people of Antioch rejected their message, Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust off their feet”—a gesture that indicated not anger but a disclaiming of responsibility. These missionaries realized that they could not control how others would respond. What they could control was whether they would continue to preach. And preach they did as they moved on to Iconium!
18 What about the disciples left in Antioch? True, they were in hostile territory. But their joy was not dependent on a positive response. Jesus said: “Happy are those hearing the word of God and keeping it!” (Luke 11:28) And that is precisely what the disciples in Pisidian Antioch resolved to do.
19 Like Paul and Barnabas, may we always remember that our responsibility is to preach the good news. The decision to accept or reject the message rests squarely with our listeners. If those to whom we preach seem unresponsive, we can take a lesson from the first-century disciples. By appreciating the truth and allowing ourselves to be led by holy spirit, we too can be joyful, even in the face of opposition.—Gal. 5:18, 22.
See the box “Barnabas—‘Son of Comfort.’”
At this point, congregations can already be found as far away as Syrian Antioch—some 350 miles (550 km) north of Jerusalem.
See the box “On the Road.”
In the first century, a ship could travel about a hundred miles (150 km) in a day if winds were favorable. In unfavorable conditions, such a journey could take much longer.
See the box “In the Synagogues of the Jews.”
Cyprus was under the rule of the Roman Senate. The principal administrator of the island was a provincial governor with the rank of proconsul.
From this point on, Saul is referred to as Paul. Some have suggested that he adopted the Roman name in honor of Sergius Paulus. However, the fact that he retained the name Paul even after leaving Cyprus points to a different explanation—that Paul, “an apostle to the nations,” decided henceforth to use his Roman name. He may also have used the name Paul because the Greek pronunciation of his Hebrew name, Saul, is very similar to that of a Greek word that has a bad connotation.—Rom. 11:13.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written several years later. In that letter, Paul wrote: “It was through a sickness of my flesh I declared the good news to you the first time.”—Gal. 4:13.